Native Ecosystem Restoration Expanded in Southeastern Virginia

The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) and the Meadowview Biological Research Station (MBRS) recently acquired land that expands an existing conservation easement on the Joseph Pines Preserve in Sussex County.  The 196-acre purchase by MBRS increases the preserve property to nearly 428 acres. The easement, donated to VDOF by MBRS, includes the entire preserve.

“This partnership exemplifies the positive impact of multiple agencies and nonprofit organizations working together with a shared vision,” said Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring. “As a result of this conservation project we are seeing the restoration of a rare forest community with public access.”

The property, which is open to visitors for low-impact use, is managed to restore a native longleaf pine ecosystem. Longleaf pine’s native range once extended from southeast Virginia to east Texas. Although no natural longleaf pine forests remain in Sussex County, historical forest models indicate that longleaf would have likely been present on the Joseph Pines Preserve landscape. A joint research initiative with the USDA Forest Service in 2018 confirmed the assumption – an old log pulled from wetlands on the property was tested and identified as longleaf pine. 

“Five centuries ago, longleaf pine was arguably the most common tree species in upland southeast Virginia,” said Virginia State Forester Rob Farrell. “VDOF and many of our partners have long recognized the importance of longleaf restoration to environmental and economic health, and we are excited to strengthen our efforts through the expansion of this easement.”

VDOF has held an easement on the preserve’s original 232 acres since 2012. The recent purchase of the additional acreage was made possible by grant funding from the Virginia Land Conservation Fund, the Cameron Foundation, a third anonymous foundation, a loan guarantee from Atlantic Union Bank, and a loan from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund. MBRS’ goal is to expand the preserve to 2,000 acres in Sussex County, by adding property and amending the easement over time.

“Our mission is to put back parts of the system that were lost, to preserve the history, and restore this land as best we can to what we think it was,” said Dr. Phil Sheridan, Director of MBRS. 

With its collective land holdings, MBRS has one of the largest sources of native Virginia longleaf pine seed. MBRS has been a pioneer of longleaf conservation and research and plans to support their conservation efforts by working with VDOF to harvest an existing loblolly pine plantation on the property and convert it to native Virginia longleaf pine. MBRS and VDOF determined that the native longleaf pine genotype is superior for in-state planting because of greater survival, growth, water-use efficiency, and fecundity over other southern seed sources.

“Our organization is a part of the VDOF family. We have a long history of working together with the department, especially on activities to restore longleaf pine. Our work together ultimately culminated with acquiring land to meet our research and preservation goals,” said Dr. Sheridan

Longleaf Pine Ecosystems

Longleaf pine woods at Joseph Pines Preserve. Photo Credit: Meadowview Biological Research Station

Longleaf pine forests are fire-dependent, meaning fire is required for regeneration by preparing an open and clean seedbed. Longleaf ecosystems host a number of other rare species in Virginia, including red-cockaded woodpeckers and two species of pitcher plants. Intensive harvesting and a legacy of fire suppression in the Southeast caused significant decline of the longleaf forests and other fire-dependent species. Joseph Pines Preserve, for example, was likely fire-suppressed for over 100 years. Preserve managers have reintroduced fire to the landscape and will continue work to restore the native ecosystem through the reintroduction of at least 18 rare plant species and three rare animal species.

Some species found in the disappearing longleaf forests were not preserved in seedbanks and have been lost forever. Among them are two pitcher plant species, making them a primary focus for the MBRS. Joseph Pine Preserve hosts six rescued native populations of yellow pitcher plants, five of which have gone extinct in  Virginia. “Preserving this habitat means we’re preventing extinction and conserving biodiversity,” said Dr. Sheridan.

Importance for Forest Conservation

Restoring longleaf pine to the landscape is important for many reasons. In addition to supporting critical habitat, longleaf can be a commercially valuable tree. They contribute to Virginia’s overall forest health because they may be more resistant to pests (like southern pine beetle) than other species of pine, due to inherent characteristics of the tree and the use of fire in longleaf forest management. Longleaf pine forests can also be important sources of fresh water.

Frequent prescribed burning means less thickets and dense foliage, making it easier to walk along the trails. Numerous coveys of native bobwhite quail (another diminished species in Virginia) may startle the unsuspecting hiker. Preserve managers have also heard calls from the rare Bachman’s sparrow on the property. The Preserve also hosts the only known publicly accessible yellow pitcher plant site. 

“Identifying forestland with significant conservation value is an essential part of VDOF’s land conservation programs,” said VDOF Forestland Conservation Specialist Amanda Scheps. “The Joseph Pines Preserve is an outstanding example of land that contains important habitat and supports important research to restore a diminished species.”

About MBRS and Joseph Pines Preserve

Meadowview Biological Research Station is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to preserving and restoring rare wetland plants, habitats, and associated ecosystems on the coastal plain of Maryland and Virginia.  Land acquisition and management is made possible through the generous support of donors, state, federal, and private foundations, and volunteers. To learn more about how you can help, visit: www.pitcherplant.org

The primary purpose of Joseph Pines Preserve is habitat restoration and conservation. Although the property is open to the public for low-impact permitted activities, visitors must submit an access and use permit prior to entering the property; the preserve is closed during deer hunting season. Examples of permitted activities are hiking and birdwatching, while ATV and horseback riding are prohibited to prevent damage or weed introduction that would negatively impact rare plant species, Plant collection is strictly forbidden.

About the Virginia Department of Forestry

The Virginia Department of Forestry protects and develops healthy, sustainable forest resources for Virginians.  With nearly 16 million acres of forestland and more than 108,000 Virginians employed in forestry, forest products and related industries, Virginia forests provide an overall economic output of more than $21 billion annually.  

Headquartered in Charlottesville, the Agency has forestry staff members assigned to every county to provide citizen service and public safety protection across the Commonwealth, which it’s been doing now for more than 100 years. VDOF is an equal opportunity provider.

Contacts

Michelle Stoll, Virginia Department of Forestry, (434) 282-4014, michelle.stoll@dof.virginia.gov
Dr. Phil Sheridan, Meadowview Biological Research Station, (804) 633-4336, meadowview@pitcherplant.org

Featured Image: Native yellow pitcher plant at Joseph Pines Preserve, Photo Credit: Meadowview Biological Research Station

Field Notes: Longleaf Pine Planting at Big Woods

By Jim Schroering, VDOF Longleaf Pine/Southern Pine Beetle Coordinator

On a cold but sunny Saturday in December, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) completed a longleaf pine planting project on their Big Woods State Forest (BWSF). Longleaf pine once covered more than 1,000,000 acres in Virginia, but it is now considered a diminished species. Until 25 years ago, only 200 mature longleaf pines were left in southeast Virginia. Longleaf pine now covers approximately 8,000 acres in the state, thanks to VDOF and the Longleaf Cooperators of Virginia, a cooperative group of state, local, and federal agencies, private landowners, and non-governmental organizations.

Planting crew at work

The 41-acre BWSF tract planted on December 19 was originally an industrial loblolly pine plantation. The timber was clearcut earlier in 2020, and the tract was burned in July to prepare the site for planting. Dennis Gaston, VDOF State Forest forester, managed the timber sale, burning, planting contract, and field supervision. Through a generous grant from the Arbor Day Foundation, 23,000 native longleaf pine containerized seedlings grown at VDOF’s Garland Gray Nursery were purchased and planted at BWSF. An experienced planting crew from South Carolina was hired to plant the trees. Dennis Gaston and the crew foreman supervised the planting operation to ensure the trees were planted properly and to the correct spacing.

Newly planted longleaf seedling

Southeastern Virginia is at the northern limit of the native range for longleaf pine. VDOF and the Longleaf Cooperators of Virginia have been working for more than 20 years to reestablish longleaf pine in its native Virginia habitat, thus providing a unique ecological niche which had been functionally eliminated. It is hoped that by adding longleaf pine to this site, both the plant and animal diversity on Big Woods State Forest will increase. An additional benefit will be the reintroduction of fire to the ecosystem in order to properly manage the new stand.

Special thanks for the successful completion of this project go to Jennifer Moon and Bradley Brandt at the Arbor Day Foundation, H and H Forestry, Elder and his seasoned crew of tree planters, the VDOF staff at Garland Gray Nursery, and Dennis Gaston.

Field Notes: A Crop of Cones

By Jim Schroering, VDOF Longleaf Pine Coordinator, and Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

Fall is harvest time in Virginia – corn, soybeans, apples, cotton, pine cones … Wait, pine cones?

Pine cones, indeed. The 2020 longleaf pine cone crop was harvested at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR) South Quay Sandhills Natural Area Preserve during the week of October 12 and at the Department of Forestry’s New Kent Forestry Center on October 19.

Manij Upadhyay harvesting longleaf cones

Why harvest cones? The seeds inside them are the key to restoring a species that was almost gone from our state. The majestic longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) once dominated a wide swath of land from southeastern Virginia across the Southern states to eastern Texas. The fire-dependent longleaf ecosystem was biologically diverse and provided critical habitat to some plants and animals that are now threatened or endangered.

Crown of longleaf pine
Longleaf pine cone (center) beside smaller loblolly pine cones

In Virginia, more than a million acres of longleaf disappeared over the last few centuries. The reasons were many: pitch extraction for the naval stores industry, timber harvest to fuel construction, conversion of former pinelands to agriculture, and exclusion of fire by a rapidly growing population. At one time, native Virginia longleaf pine was no longer measured in acres, but in numbers of individual trees. Fortunately, the Virginia Longleaf Pine Cooperators Group – including government agencies, universities, and nonprofits – has worked along with private landowners to restore this valuable tree to much of its former range. Today Virginia has 8000 acres of longleaf…and counting.

Young longleaf pines

Longleaf cone production is notoriously inconsistent, and 2020 validated this observation. About 100 trees at South Quay produce cones in a typical year, but 2020 turned out to be anything but typical. Early field predictions for longleaf cone production in the Southeast were described as ‘minimal’, ‘well below normal’ or even ‘non-existent’. While about 75 trees at South Quay were scouted, only 25 trees had enough cones to harvest, producing only five bushels of cones. Another three bushels of longleaf cones were harvested at New Kent. Unfortunately, the low harvest will limit the number of Virginia native longleaf seedlings produced at Garland Gray Nursery next year. (The nursery grows longleaf seedlings from “northern source” trees, because research has shown they possess characteristics that enhance growth and survival in the northern part of the tree’s range.)

Green longleaf cones waiting to dry and open

A special thanks goes out to the following individuals who braved the heat, mosquitoes and heavy brush to help in the collection process: Rebecca Wilson, Longleaf Pine Coordinator, DCR – Natural Heritage Program; Darren Loomis, Southeast Region Steward, DCR – Natural Heritage Program; Jim Schroering – VDOF Longleaf Pine Coordinator; Manij Upadhyay, VDOF Blackwater Area Forester (and fearless cone picker trainee), Jim Blackwell, VDOF Waverly Area Forest Technician, Dennis Gaston, VDOF Eastern State Forests Forester and Ben Duke, VDOF Eastern State Forests Technician.

For more information on the battle to save longleaf pine, read VDOF’s restoration report. Want to be a part of the recovery? If you live in southeastern Virginia and think your land might be a good candidate for growing longleaf, contact your local VDOF office to learn more.

VDOF Pine Projects Continue Despite Unusual Circumstances

In late March, VDOF personnel completed a longleaf pine grafting project at the New Kent Forestry Center (NKFC). The longleaf pine seed orchard at NKFC has been developed in response to a need for consistent crop production to support restoration efforts for this diminished species.

Read more: From the Brink! The Effort to Restore Virginia’s Native Longleaf Pine, 2014 Status Report

This year during a three-day period, a crew collected and grafted 97 scion. Scion are approximately five- to eight-inch buds cut from older, established longleaf trees in the orchard.  By top-grafting the scion (explained below with photos) onto established three- to four-foot tall root stock, VDOF’s tree improvement team can achieve two things:

  • Create an orchard selection from a known parent – a successful graft will be an exact duplicate or clone of its parent.
  • Stimulate early flower production – grafted trees will produce cones and seed sooner than non-grafted trees.

The longleaf pine project is an attempt to preserve the genetics of the very few (<200) remaining Virginia-native longleaf pines. Research has found that these trees are uniquely adapted to the climate and soil conditions here at the northern limit of their range. Because grafted trees are clones of their parents, this process allows VDOF to save as much of this genetic base as possible for future seed/seedling production.

Longleaf Pine Grafting Process in Photos

 

Bitoki
Ones Bitoki (tree improvement manager) has cut the terminal bud from the root stock and grafted a scion in its place.

 

Gaston
Dennis Gaston (eastern area state forests manager) has wrapped a grafted scion with rubber grafting bands which will hold everything in place until it begins to grow together.

Creighton
The new grafts are first wrapped with rubber grafting bands, which was noted in the previous photo.  Next they are wrapped with parafilm which helps to seal the graft and keep out insects or any elements which may harm the graft.  Finally, it is wrapped in aluminum foil, adding another layer of protection. In this photo, Jerre Creighton (research program manager) is wrapping a graft in foil.

 

Schroering
We tag each graft with the parent tree number and the grafting date for our records.  In this photo, Jim Schroering (southern pine beetle and longleaf pine coordinator) has tagged a completed graft.

 

Wrapped Graft
This photo shows a completed graft wrapped with the rubber bands and parafilm.

 

Successfull 2019 graft
This photo shows one of VDOF’s successful grafts that was done in 2019.

Another Pine Project at NKFC

Grafting wasn’t the only work that took place at NKFC during this time.  During March, Jeff Stout (tree improvement technician) removed trees from the third cycle loblolly pine orchard that have been cut or “rogued” from the orchard.

As the orchard matures, trees that rank lowest in productivity scoring are removed, which in turn increases the overall productivity of the remaining families due to open pollination of all the trees throughout the orchard.

This orchard is not managed like a pine plantation because the desired outcomes are different.  We reduce the area between trees as they grow to reduce competition so the orchard trees will grow outward rather than upward (which would be preferable in a pine plantation.) The wider the trees are, the more limbs they have and thus more cone production.

Stout
Jeff is removing one of the cut orchard trees using an articulated loader with clamp attachment.

Field Notes: Protecting the Northern Source Longleaf

By Senior Area Forester Scott Bachman

The official start of spring may be only weeks away, but forester Scott Bachman doesn’t want to breeze past the (briefly) snowy landscape of southeastern Virginia. The scene highlights a unique landscape feature that VDOF is working to protect – the northern seed source of longleaf pine.

Several weeks ago, the southeastern counties and cities of Virginia received their first and only snow of this winter (so far!)  As you might expect, the few inches of wet snow created a spectacular landscape that was so different from our typical winter landscapes of earth tones and greens.  It was remarkable to see the contrast of bright white against our pine-hardwood forests.  A young longleaf pine stand provided a particularly unique vista.

 

longleaf_bachman_blog_2020

longleaf_bachman_blog_2020_2
Longleaf on Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation property in Isle of Wight, called the Antioch Pines of the Blackwater Pine Barrens.

Once a representative tree of the Deep South, longleaf pine is now a diminished species in Virginia. The City of Suffolk contains the last larger acreage of native longleaf pine in the Commonwealth.  The seed source from this stand is being protected and harvested of seed producing cones by the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) and the Department of Conservation and Recreation, Natural Heritage program.

Why is this important? The trees of our native longleaf seed source exhibit characteristics that are somewhat different than trees from farther south.  VDOF research staff has tested local seed source trees against other sources and can verify this difference.

Are our “northern source” trees better able to withstand a blanket of snow?  I don’t know that we can yet answer this with certainty, but the genetics are certainly worth protecting.

 

 

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today? Dec. 5, 2017

by Area Forester Lisa Deaton

Baby Longleaf

Last week was finally time to plant a longleaf pine project.  The landowner had spent over a year preparing a 17-acre cutover site for these seedlings.  Longleaf pine is known for its very long needles, huge pine cones, very strong “heart pine” lumber, and the naval stores it can produce.  The longleaf seedlings are in the planters’ bags.

longleaf planting crew

As you can see, the planting crew was ready to go to work early in the morning.  The loblolly pine plantation on the left is 21 years old.  It was precommercially thinned at age 10, understory burned at age 14, and commercially thinned at age 17.  The area to the right of the road was clearcut to make room for the longleaf plantation.

planters on road

In 3-4 years, the new plantation should look something like this:

suffolk plantation

Longleaf pine used to be part of 1.5 million acres of forest in the southeastern corner of Virginia until around 1700.  Its presence allowed for the beginning of the ship-building industry in Hampton Roads.  However, the historic harvest of longleaf lumber and naval stores, the conversion of forest to farm fields, and the exclusion of fire helped lead to the decline of longleaf pine in Virginia’s landscape.  A great deal of research has been conducted on how to reestablish longleaf pine in Virginia.  Our hope is to increase species richness and biodiversity at the northern limit of where longleaf pine can grow.

baby longleaf

One discovery is that planting containerized seedlings in the fall, as opposed to bare-root seedlings in the early spring, is more successful.

open field planting

Sometimes landowners decide to plant agricultural fields back into trees.  These planting rows were “scalped” to remove the roots of grasses that could compete for water, nutrients, and sunlight with the longleaf seedlings.  A “ripper” was also used to break up compacted soil so that the longleaf roots can grow deep.  The ripper is in the “up” position in this photo.  It is the white looking piece of metal.

scalping plow n tractor